ECU historian pens book about eastern N.C. Native Americans
(Dec. 2, 2005)
Until last month, little had been published about the history of the Native American tribes in eastern North Carolina. In his new book,Keeping the Circle: American Indian Identity in Eastern North Carolina,1885-2004 (University of Nebraska Press), ECU history professor Christopher Arris Oakley examines this segment of the region’s population and the efforts they have made to maintain their distinctive identity.
“I became intrigued how the Indian communities in eastern North Carolina have maintained their identity, especially since the Jim Crow era,” he said. “I found that they employed several strategies during the past 100 years and those strategies have changed over time.”
Drawing from a range of research material, including interviews, news clippings, state and federal archives, and personal papers, Oakley found that segregated churches and schools in the 1900s initially provided a means for Native Americans to maintain their cultural identity, while economic and social conditions have inspired modern day Native Americans to protect and celebrate their identity primarily through the powwow.
“In the last 30 years, the powwow celebrations have been a combination of different tribal cultures,” he said. “The traditions are not necessarily indigenous to the region, and some of the traditions are from the west or the Plains culture. But the powwow is designed to promote internal unity and it serves as an assertion of culture to outsiders, even though it might play off of what people tend to think what a ‘traditional’ Indian is.”
The isolated farming communities at the turn of the century had enabled Native Americans to maintain their identity from the black and white populations in eastern North Carolina. Segregated school systems and churches helped to maintain that identity, Oakley said. As farming waned and industrialization grew after World War II, the communities became less isolated and their “Indian-ness” was challenged continually. After the Brown v. Board of Education ruling began to take effect, in the 1960s, Oakley saw that powwows and the naming of local tribes surfaced as another strategy for maintaining and keeping alive Native American culture and customs.
For example, Oakley noted that the tribal name, Lumbee, did not exist in the 1880s, but continual challenges from outsiders to the heritage in these eastern communities helped to form structures of kinship and acceptance in the 1940s and 1950s under that name.
“Some have ancestral ties and some are new to tribal organizations,” he said. “Many of them are not descendents of a single origin, but rather from many origins.”
The tribes of eastern North Carolina, which include Lumbees, the Tuscaroras, the Waccamaw Sioux, the Occaneechis, the Meherrins, the Haliwa-Saponis, and the Coharies, are not federally recognized, although some have state recognition and have sought to be recognized federally. The Cherokee of western North Carolina, said Oakley, is the only federally recognized tribe in the state.
Keeping the Circle was welcomed Nov. 16 by several of ECU’s Native American student organizations, as well as the Ledonia Wright Cultural Center and the Office of Institutional Diversity.